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Nobel laureates in literature: the good, the bad and the Nazi

Knut HamsunNobel Prize

When the Nobel Prize in literature was announced this month, the name "Herta Muller" met much American head-scratching. Muller, an ethnically German Romanian who writes of trials of living under a repressive dictatorship, has a strong reputation in Europe that hasn't gained much momentum in the U.S. Coming as it did on the heels of last year's choice, French author Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio -- few of whose works had been translated into English -- the selection made some wonder whether the prize is becoming increasingly esoteric.

Not to mention, in the case of Le Clézio's award, wrongheaded. His landmark 1980 work "Desert," recently released in translation in the U.S., is, our reviewer writes, "a truly dreadful book."

But it hasn't always been this way. A look at the list of Nobel literature laureates is stunning. Just a few: Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Mann, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, William Butler Yeats, Hermann Hesse, T.S. Eliot, Andre Gide, Albert Camus, Jose Saramago, V.S. Naipaul, Naguib Mahfouz, Gunter Grass, Jean-Paul Sartre, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Octavio Paz. And many Americans: William Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, Pearl S. Buck, Eugene O'Neill, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Saul Bellow, Toni Morrison. It's enough to inspire a years-long reading binge.

Some Nobel laureates have been forgotten. The first, French poet and essayist Sully Prudhomme, has not exactly remained a household name since receiving the prize in 1901.

And then there's Knut Hamsun. The Norwegian author's book "Hunger" (1890) was praised both as a modernist work and for its critique of modernity. When he won the Nobel in 1920, he was thought of as a leading humanist, but 20 years later, he became a Nazi. An enthusiastic one: after meeting Joseph Goebbels, he mailed him his Nobel medal in admiration. After the war, he was found guilty of crimes against Norway.

This is the 150th anniversary of Hamsun's birth, which is being celebrated in his home country. Two new books return to his difficult legacy, looking simultaneously at his politics and his prose. In our pages today, Matthew Shaer looks at "Knut Hamsun: Dreamer and Dissenter" by Ingar Sletten Kolloen and "Knut Hamsun: The Dark Side of Literary Brilliance" by Monika Zagar. Shaer writes:

To thrive, an artist must leave the city for the rough living of the country. He must immerse himself [Hamsun wrote] in "the unpredictable chaos of perception, the delicate life of the imagination held under the microscope; the meanderings of these thoughts and feelings in the blue, trackless, traceless journeys of the heart and mind, curious workings of the psyche, the whisperings of the blood, prayers of the bone, the entire unconscious life of the mind."

In his prime, Hamsun always wrote like this -- beautifully, poetically and savagely. ...

And yet Hamsun, personally and politically, was a monster.

Without "Hunger," Shaer writes, we would not have Kafka's "A Hunger Artist." That's one measure -- and the Nobel is another -- that marks it as an important work, one that should be read. Or should it? If Hamsun's work is evaluated through the lens of his politics, is he better forgotten?

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: William Faulkner in 1955.

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The Prize is given for the person's achievements at the time. What that person does subsequently has nothing to do with the integrity of the Nobel Prize.

As a Nazi Nobelist Hamsun had some company. Johannes Stark, a German, won the Physics Nobel in 1919. Years later he joined the emerging Nazi movement, abandoned an early interest in Einstein's relativity, and led the charge against "Jewish Physics" of Einstein and others. When Nobelist Werner Heisenberg, who was not Jewish, defended Einstein, Stark labeled him a "White Jew."

Just because the americans don't know a writer, it does not mean he/she does not deserve the Nobel prize. It sounds like it would not be a bad idea for you to take some french, spanish or german lessons.

I'm not sure what relevance this has to the today. The bottom line is sometimes the Nobel committees get it right, sometimes wrong.

Their timing is just weired. It took them 40 years to recognize the Charged Coupled Device inventors that were well overdue, and 40 minutes to give Obama his award.

Frankly, they've made a mess of it.

Re Clezio, it might be that the LA Times reviewer is a "truly dreadful" critic, or unable to read past his/her American biases. Can any Nobel Laureate be any worse than our own dear Edna Ferber?? I can easily imagine a French critic puzzling over her award. You write a very stupid article.

He should be remembered for the infamy of his life. Artistic achievement is one thing, being a monster is entirely another.

Well the Nobel Peace prize has been given to well known war criminals such as Henry Kissinger (Bombed Cambodia/Vietnam killing more than a million civillians) or Menachem Begin of Deir Yassin fame (He killed some 100+ muslim women and children and stuffed their bodies down the village well).

At least the Nobel winners turned Nazi supporters did not themselves do the killings.

Sorry to have to introduce a tone of harsh reality, but somehow i doubt that Pearl Buck has really survived the test of time as a writer of universal & timeless significance. To give but one example.
[Karl Gjellerup and John Galsworthy and Henrik Seinkiwicz being some others]
The Nobel Lit folks missed Kapusczinski but did dish it out to an obscure Polish poetess (whose name I've already forgetten).
They also missed Proust, Joyce, Conrad, Virginia Woolf
The chair or whatever he is of the Swedish Nobel Lit committee has baldly stated that Americans won't be recipients on his watch due to the insular nature of American culture. Which seems like a remarkably pompous & ignorant statement to make (especially when coming from Scandinavia, noted for cultural insularity)
But if what he was referring to was Joyce Carol Oates & Philip Roth, then I'm with him 100%
(In the absence of Kapuscinzki, I'd have nominatedCormac Mccarthy...But somehow I never get asked...)

Hamsun is surely either loved or hated, but as a writer he was a master of words. I read Lyngstad's translation of "Hunger" and then had the opportunity to read it all in the original language ("Sult", which is a direct translation for 'Hunger" ) It's a firework of a what you'd call a pyscho-novel.

I must admit Herta Muller's Nobel came as a surprise, but just because her work is not readily accessible to Americans or one LA literary critic is a bit tasteless should not disqualify her. I was personally routing for Nuruddin Farah.

If great artists like Wagner, Hamsun, and Pound sympathized with the Fascist cause, that doesn't mean we've misjudged them; it means we've misjudged Fascism. The infamous Fascist savageries that today preclude them any praise were committed primarily in defense of that pre-modern poetry and beauty, present in their work but effaced everywhere else by the ongoing advance of our metaphysical slavemaster: capitalist democracy. It is the defenders of this monstrosity we ought pillory; for its merciless despoilation of our planet and culture, for its oppression of the right to romance, for the ceaseless ecological holocaust we willfully ignore; no evil compares! Today, we condemn sensitive and insightful men of the past their politics but praise their art only because we cannot acknowledge reality itself: that Fascism was glorious, and that when the cause was lost, so too was the sustainable paradise it promised.

Woe unto us all these meagre tomorrows...

Great literature deserves better blogs.

1) "Esoteric" is a highly subjective claim, which should at least be credibly supported. Surely, Ms. Muller's works are not an "esoteric" experience for those who endured the Ceauşescu regime or any other state tyranny, or for a reader who is moved to greater understanding about such an experience.

2) Regarding Mr. Ehrenreich's critique of Le Clézio's novel, "Desert," it's ironic that Ms. Kellogg seems not to have heeded Ehrenreich's wise and keenly nuanced warnings against myopic "centrism" in general. Kellogg's list of previous Nobel literature laureates (whose work is presumably a-esoteric?) shows an overwhelming, presumptive favor toward white and/or western-centric authors, while tossing in a few "token-approved" exceptions. That's hardly a sincere attempt to step out onto an a-centric, global limb.

Narrow, disingenuous, or patronizing cultural views limit our wider embrace of a fuller spectrum of literature or any art. Such views can blind or distort our perceptions of unfamiliar material that is marked by genuine insight, ingenuity and beauty (assuming that a work is worthy to be considered art).

3) Literature inherently challenges, upturns, and disturbs the status quo. Would most of the authors listed above be comfortable with the self-congratulatory, 20/20 hindsight of Kellogg's list as a measure of literary courage or innovation? In welcome contrast, didn't Susan Sontag do much to publicly support relatively unknown or culturally marginalized authors from around the globe (not just a safe fraction of it), writers whose work she believed merited broader literary recognition?

The literary voice is far too rich, varied and vast for us to be deprived of vibrant perspectives that appeal to our hunger and curiosity to explore new, unknown, or uncomfortable territory -- to a truly open, adventurous, astutely nimble, and highly sensitive reader, that is.

Lastly, if readers can't comprehend the complex links between Hamsun's literary gift and his attraction to Nazism, perhaps they should read more literature. Literature is not a straight line from talent to barbarism (or political-correctness). Its complexity eludes such labels, or else why should we bother with it at all? Condemn a writer for his ideologically heinous political associations, sure. But understand her complexities as a human being and artist, and art and humanity are the better for it.

Le Clézio, a wrongheaded Nobel? Maybe you should give him a second try. If possible, in French.

Most-deserved Nobel of the past ten years?

V.S. Naipaul.



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